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Thursday, April 9, 2015

When it is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and you discover that your ancestors' unit served at Gettysburg

Bells will be ringing across the nation this afternoon at 3:15 Eastern time as we commemorate the re-union of the United States of America with the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ullyses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse 150 years ago today on April 9, 1865.

But bells are ringing for me this morning! I've just made an exciting genealogical discovery: my 3rd-great-grandfather James McGonigal's unit (162nd Regiment, 17th Cavalry) served at the battles of Chancellorsville and ...Gettysburg!

Private Levi F. Hocker of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment (in which my 3rd-great-grandfather served) in uniform with pistol and sword. Image from collection of Library of Congress.

It's a long story, but James McGonigal is on a branch of my Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania Irish family tree that has been more difficult than others for me to trace. Until recently, I have focused on his daughter and grand-daughter and their families, and have still not been successful at finding key documents about their lives.

Because of this difficulty, I had all but ignored the little research I had done on Irish immigrant coal miner James McGonigal and his wife Mary of St. Clair, Pennsylvania, preferring instead to work through the more recent generations until I was satisfied with my conclusions there.

A month ago I delved back into this family and made the discovery that James was indeed a Civil War soldier, serving at the senior age of 43. (Two of his neighbors aged 44 were denied the opportunity to serve due to being "over age". See St. Clair Civil War registry below) .

Civil War registry of the residents of St. Clair, Pennsylvania. James McGonigal (spelled McGonegal) is listed last.

I ordered James McGonigal's pension file from the National Archives in Washington D.C. four weeks ago. It arrived pretty quickly - just a few days ago. I was eager to learn more about this branch of the family, and was very disappointed when I opened the digital file on the NARA CD and found that they had sent me the pension file for the wrong soldier.

Knowing that I would have to wait another month for James' file to arrive, and eager to know more about this man's service as I was thinking of today's 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, I did a little digging online this morning and learned the name of and the actions engaged in by James' regiment.

The History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65 by Samuel P. Bates tells the details of the activity of the 162nd Regiment, 17th Cavalry. The book speaks glowingly of their efforts during the war, including their four hour resistance of the advance of the Confederate troops into Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 under the command of General John Buford as they awaited aid from additional Union troops. Their efforts were critical to Union success at the Battle of Gettysburg, as they had arrived before the Confederate Army became well organized, and were able to establish a solid presence on much-desired high ground south of the town.

As Cavalry General Alfred Pleasanton later wrote in Conduct of the Civil War, Supplement, Part 2Pleasanton's Report, page 9:
"To the intrepidity, courage and fidelity of General Buford and his brave division, the country and the army owe the field of Gettysburg." - General Pleasanton
It is inspiring to learn more about the valiant efforts of these cavalry men in the face of what would become such a grievous battle and one of the turning points of the Civil War. I look forward to learning more about my ancestor James McGonigal's role in the cavalry during those historic days.

And as the bells ring today throughout the nation - in Appomattox, in Philadelphia (the Liberty Bell), at the Statue of Liberty, and in national parks, cemeteries, battlefields, municipal buildings, schools and churches throughout the nation this afternoon, I'll be ringing my own bells - and thinking of James McGonigal and his brave companions.


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